Proceeds from the sale of underused court buildings will be invested in technology to move away from the 'physical paradigm', HM Courts and Tribunals Service's new chief executive said today in her first public speech in the role.
Natalie Ceeney (pictured), who joined HMCTS from HSBC bank in January, told the Criminal Justice Management conference in London that the entire courts system needs to be 'digital in design'.
Today the service spends one-third of its budget on running and maintaining our buildings, she said, while last year over a third of courts sat for less than 50% of the time available to them. 'For many of our services, that physical paradigm no longer feels like the right answer, not just because it’s expensive, but because it is no longer the right answer for good justice,' she said.
She contrasted the courts service's use of digital technology with that of the private sector. 'Britain has the highest rate of online service usage in the world – over one-quarter of all non-food goods are now purchased online and 85% of Britons are online. We need to enable a police officer to give evidence by video, taking 10 mins of time off their working day, rather than the current half day. We need to stop running prison vans to transport prisoners to and from prisons for a 10-minute plea hearing which can be done online.' She also endorsed Sir Brian Leveson's proposals for virtual hearings in routine matters.
'We clearly need the full majesty of our criminal courts for our most complex and our most horrific criminal trials,' Ceeney said. 'But, as we are showing through the new streamlined summary justice procedures, they feel disproportionate and unnecessary for traffic offences.' 'Today,' she said, 'we hold physical tribunal hearings for immigration appeals with full legal representation, despite the appellants being physically out of the country. And we transport prisoners across the country, at huge cost, for a five-minute bail hearing in front of a judge.'
On the current 'green screen' state of courtroom technology, she said: 'We have thousands of extremely hard working and dedicated staff whose jobs are to handle and process mounds of paper – whether to type in handwritten forms as a result of us not having a decent online interface or manually check benefits entitlement because we don’t (yet) have the interconnectivity with DWP’s database.'
Ceeney said that HMCTS is finalising the business case for a £375m investment in new infrastructure over five years. In the meantime, she said the equipping of magistrates' courts with digital technology would be complete by Christmas.
On current proposals for court closures, she said: 'We are currently consulting on the consolidation of our court estate, moving work from underutilised buildings into better nearby buildings which we believe will give a better service. This will free-up buildings that we don’t need, which we can sell. The proceeds of these sales will go straight into this reinvestment into our future IT infrastructure and modernisation programme.'
The consultation closes on 8 October.